Greg Cartwright has been cranking out underground hits since the early '90s. As the hardworking man behind groups like Oblivians, the Royal Pendletons and the Reigning Sound, the yearly musical landscape doesn't seem complete without a Cartwright-related release. Luckily for his fans, Cartwright has stayed busy with Oblivians releasing Desperation last year and a critically acclaimed new album by the Reigning Sound released earlier this year. We caught up with Cartwright to find out how he handles double duty between his bands, how he picks his cover songs, and the regional significance of the title of the latest Reigning Sound album, Shattered.
Flyer: The Oblivians had a great comeback last year with a new record and a handful of out-of-town shows. How hard is it to transition between writing songs for the Oblivians and then turning around and writing a Reigning Sound record?
Greg Cartwright: It's not very difficult at all. There are some times when I write a song specifically for a band, but most of the time I don't start out like that. I just write as many different songs as I can, then try to figure out where they fit, and the only way to know is to play it with different people and see what works. Sometimes you play with someone and you know right away that the song fits and it's going to work, but if it doesn't, then I just put it back in the folder of my brain and save it for later.
I think all really good songs are versatile. Songs that get covered and get played a hundred different ways, that's a sign of a strong song, one that can be played by anyone because it has such a good chord progression and melody. I just swing with the people I'm playing with, that way I get to think about the song in a different light and it doesn't feel fake.
When I was doing the Oblivians' record, some of those songs were already written before I got together with Jack and Eric. The song "Pinball King" I wrote in like 1993 or '92, and it's just been sitting around for that long. The first cut on the [Oblivians] record I had laying around for a year, and Reigning Sound could have easily played that song, it just would have sounded different.
You've worked with some big indie labels, but this is your first release on North Carolina label Merge; was it important to work with a label close to home?
It kind of just worked out that way, but I like the idea of working with people who aren't that far away. If I need to go and talk to them, it's really close to home and that's nice. Before I did the promotional thing for Scion, I had done a Parting Gifts record, and I gave the demos to Mac from Merge, and they wanted to put it out. They were booked until next year and I went back and talked to the people in Parting Gifts and they didn't want to wait, and so [California-based label] In The Red ended up putting it out because they could do it immediately. Mac offered to do a future record or a Reigning Sound record, so when Shattered was done, I gave it to him.
The latest LP is called Shattered, a term that people have been using in the garage-rock scene to describe a hangover or wild night. What significance does that word have to you?
Around 1992 Mike, Matt, and King Louie from the Royal Pendletons all said 'shattered' constantly. It was like one of those regional catch phrases. They'd say, "Aww, man I went to this show last night and no one was there and it was shattered." It was a versatile word though, because it could also mean something totally amazing happened. It was a multi-purpose word that meant something went down and it was worth talking about. Eric [Friedl] and Jack [Yarber] brought it into their vocabulary and that's probably why it came to Memphis. I think it comes from the Royal Pendletons, but I'm sure Jay [Reatard] heard people say it, and he picked up on it, too. Memphis kind of nicked the phrase from New Orleans and the Pendletons. I think some people probably think it comes from the Rolling Stones song, so I'll have to ask Mike and Matt if that's where they got it from.
How is playing with the latest incarnation of the Reigning Sound different than some of the lineups you've had in the past?
All the lineups have been a little bit different. Each set of players has had their own dynamic, and this lineup is a little bit more in the pocket than ones I've had before. It's also much more R&B than any other lineup, and it's really economical; no one is playing extra stuff, everyone is just playing the parts and doing what needs to be done. It's pretty simple, and I like that. Every time a member changes, the sound changes, and then you think of new things to do with the songs.
Some of your biggest "hits" have been covers. Is there any band or song you consider "un-coverable?" Or if you like a song, is it pretty much fair game?
I think any song that I enjoy is fair game. I steer away from hits because you're directly competing with something everyone already knows. If you pick something no one has ever heard before, you can add your own thing to it and there is nothing else to compare it to. People don't know if it's your song or someone else wrote it. Then if they do end up hearing the original version, they compare yours to the original because they heard your version first.
Even though you're living in Asheville now, would you say that Shattered has a Memphis vibe or feel to it?
Absolutely. I think because of the dynamic of the band, I tried to pick a facet of Memphis music that I haven't touched before. American Sound Studio was able to give us a really smooth production that I was able to pull off with the players that I have. With this new group I felt like I could try to do something similar to a Chips Moman production, something more R&B, but at the same time similar to the Box Tops, or something like that. There were all these different sounds coming together, and at the end of the day it's a Memphis sound that's driving the songs.
What do you have planned for the rest of the year?
Reigning Sound will be doing some touring, and then at the end of the year Oblivians are playing in Chicago for New Year's Eve, and we will probably try to book some shows around that.